“In the midst of life we are in death; from whom can we seek help?” This is the beginning line of one of the optional anthems in an Episcopal funeral; it’s usually passed over for the more hopeful “I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord” anthem which is pulled largely from our gospel passage today. The anthem goes on while being punctuated by the refrain, “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and merciful Savior, deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.” This anthem has become an important prayer practice for me in my life. And I’ve mentioned before that I pray this anthem after every school shooting; I loathe having to have a practice for such tragedy, but most of the time, “deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death” is the only tether which helps me hold to hope while in grief around such a vile tragedy. Lately, though, this practice has begun to expand: devastating tornadoes in Mississippi, more than a year of a land war in Europe, and an aggressive political landscape that seems hellbent on destroying those who bear the image of God. Deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.
Whether it’s my personality, life circumstances, or my age and location in the long arc of history, I am a person who loves grief. In a lot of ways, it’s a companionship that’s been forged out of necessity and then out of a deep conviction for how transformative grief can be. There’s something so holy about the grief we carry. Grief is complicated and weird and painful; it’s disorienting and nonsensical. And because we are beings created to love, the hard truth is that we can also grieve anything. Grief isn’t really about death, it’s about loss. A loss of a sense of safety, of our health, of a sense of who we are. We can even grieve the loss of our imagined futures or plans that don’t come to be. It is painfully beautiful to me how we are so intricately created to love and grieve something that never was. In all its complexity, grief is never actually solely about the person or thing that is lost, it is about how we are changed by losing it. This is why I love grief, because we are never the same after we grieve; we are changed because we love.
Nearly all of our passages for today’s Lectionary orient us toward grief and loss; it’s not surprising then, that these are some of my favorite passages in the whole of our sacred texts. Psalm 130 is my go-to Psalm reading of choice every night in Compline and Ezekiel’s Valley of the Dry Bones might literally be one of my favorite sections of the whole of the Hebrew Bible because I have never encountered a better narrative of a community moving from a stagnant place devoid of any hope to a vibrant one infused by all hope. And our gospel passage is an iconic narrative of grief and loss and hope.
I love grief, so I should have a lot to say about all these passages that orient us to it, but truthfully, even though I do love grief, right now I just don’t like it. Grief is exhausting and consumptive; it can feel like we are drowning in the unpredictable waves of loss and the hope that is vital to survival can begin to feel faint and illusive. There is so much to grieve in our world right now, it may feel like it is everywhere we turn.
One of the things that I love about our long gospel passage this morning is how there is so much grief at play. Of course, we have Martha and Mary grieving their brother, and we have the Jewish leaders who mourned, and even Christ weeps. But in this narrative, we also see the disciples fear for their lives and for the life of Jesus. They warn him not to go to see Martha and Mary and their fear is likely grief about what they have lost and an anticipation about what might be lost, their dear friend, leader, and Rabi.
When Jesus has decided to go to Lazarus, who has been dead already for days by now, his disciples protested, likely knee deep in their own grief around what could have happened if Jesus had been killed. As it is recounted for us in this gospel, Thomas’s response to Jesus’ choice to travel is not further resistance or a litany of reasons why it would have been wiser to not make that journey, but rather a charge for his fellow disciples, “Let us go, that we may also die with him.” In Thomas’ eyes, there is no doubt that the next right thing in their grief is to continue in devotion to their Rabi, even to the point of death. It’s humorous, then, that the one thing folks tend to know or say about Thomas is that he was full of doubt as he needed to see Christ’s scars before fully believing the resurrection.
There is something so convicting in this simple and short line in the long story of Lazarus’ resurrection. It’s a story full of grief and fear and sadness and pain, and yet, in the middle of it all Thomas finds a way to express devotion and commitment. Grief is disorienting and confusing, and yet, here is an example of what it means to live into that anthem that has become vital to my prayer as I navigate this world so heavy with grief: “deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.” Thomas and his conviction, in his willingness to be a companion in the face of death and loss and grief is something which I am carrying this week.
There is so much to grieve in our world right now that it can feel disabling, but as I go out about this week, I’m going to hold closely to Thomas’ words “Let us go now, that we may also die with him.” Our grief will change us and we cannot live in our world today isolated from grief, but we can choose to walk with Christ to the cross. We can choose to be present with those who have lost what they love and we can remain connected to the grief of this world. But the only way we can do all this, to choose to hold onto hope, to not let the bitterness of eternal death scar us, and for us to be like Thomas, is to remember the unrelenting hope of the resurrection even in the face of grief and to walk with Christ, who is the Resurrection and the Life. Amen.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Lent 5A – March 36, 2023.